November 24, 2017 – British Columbia’s highest court today rejected an appeal by Vancouver-based Nevsun Resources Limited (TSX: NSU / NYSE MKT: NSU) that sought to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Eritreans who allege they were forced to work at Nevsun’s Bisha Mine.
The ruling by the British Columbia Court of Appeal marks the first time that an appellate court in Canada has permitted a mass tort claim for modern slavery.
The court rejected Nevsun’s position that the case should be dismissed in Canada and instead heard in Eritrea. Madam Justice Mary Newbury described the situation in Eritrea as one with “the prospects of no trial at all, or a trial in an Eritrean court, possibly presided over by a functionary with no real independence from the state … and in a legal system that would appear to be actuated largely by the wishes of the President and his military supporters…”
The court also allowed claims of crimes against humanity, slavery, forced labour, and torture to go forward against Nevsun. It is the first time that a Canadian appellate court has recognized that a corporation can be taken to trial for alleged violations of international law norms related to human rights.
The lawsuit, filed in November 2014, alleges that Nevsun engaged Eritrean state-run contractors and the Eritrean military to build the mine’s facilities and that the companies and military deployed forced labour under abhorrent conditions.
“We are very pleased that the case will move to trial,” said Joe Fiorante, Q.C., of Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman LLP, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “There will now be a reckoning in a Canadian court of law in which Nevsun will have to answer to the allegations that it was complicit in forced labour and grave human rights abuses at the Bisha mine.”
Since the initial filing by three Eritrean men, which was the matter reviewed by the Court of Appeal, an additional 51 people have come forward to assert claims against Nevsun.
“I am overjoyed that a Canadian court will hear our claims,” said plaintiff Gize Araya. “Since starting the case, we have always hoped Canada would provide justice for what we suffered at the mine.”
The court also rejected Nevsun’s argument that the company should be immune from suit because the case might touch on actions of the Eritrean government, including allegations of severe human rights violations. Justice Newbury, looking to a recent UK case on the issue, wrote that “torture (and I would add, forced labour and slavery) is ‘contrary to both peremptory norms of international law and a fundamental value of domestic law.’”
This latest ruling by the B.C. Court of Appeal follows one earlier this year permitting a case to go forward against Tahoe Resources for injuries suffered by protestors in Guatemala who were shot outside the company’s mine.
“The Nevsun and Tahoe cases show that Canadian courts can properly exercise jurisdiction over Canadian companies with overseas operations,” said Amanda Ghahremani, Legal Director of the Canadian Centre for International Justice. “When there is a real risk of injustice for claimants in a foreign legal system, their cases should proceed here.”
The plaintiffs are supported in Canada by a legal team comprised of Vancouver law firm Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman LLP (CFM); Ontario law firm Siskinds LLP [Nick Baker]; Toronto lawyer James Yap; and the Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ). This victory would not have been possible without the support of Human Rights Concern Eritrea and the tireless efforts of Elsa Chyrum.